Lab of Ornithology
The Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program uses the power of molecular genomics to explore the earth’s biodiversity and the processes that generate it. The program trains students, postdocs, and other young professionals, spurring their research on how speciation works and how animals are related to one another.
“We want to know why and how diversity is created,” says Irby Lovette, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and director of the program. “The common theme across all our work is that we use genomic tools to explore behavior and evolution of animals out in the wild.”
The Fuller Program hosts many visiting scholars from around the world including Latin America, Europe, Israel, and Turkey. Visitors and students use the Biotechnology Resource Center, which is available to all researchers at Cornell.
Program staff and postdocs also teach evolution courses on campus, lead field courses in Patagonia and the Galápagos, and host smaller seminars to introduce students to birds, research, and opportunities at the lab.
The Linda R. and William E. Macaulay Library houses the world’s largest collection of biodiversity media. The archive includes more than two million sound recordings, videos, and still images.
Much of the audio collection focuses on bird sounds, including some of species now extinct, but many other taxonomies are represented, including whales, insects, amphibians, mammals, and fish. The entire sound collection has been digitized and is freely available to researchers—or to anyone who enjoys listening to wild voices.
Researchers and recordists who contribute their work have long been the bedrock of the collection. The library offers a yearly recording workshop to give researchers and amateur recordists hands-on experience in the field, using the latest sound equipment and techniques. This workshop, along with equipment loans and expert advice, supports research and brings new recordings into the archive, each providing valuable insight into the natural world.
The Bioacoustic Research Program studies the sounds of wildlife and creates some of the high-tech tools needed to collect these sounds, 24/7.
The team also engineered acoustic buoys that communicate with cell towers to notify researchers when a target sound is detected. Buoys detect endangered North Atlantic right whales so that nearby ships can be alerted to reduce speed in order to prevent a deadly collision. Researchers also use underwater recording devices to understand how human-generated noise affects the ability of marine mammals to communicate.
To analyze vast amounts of acoustic data, the lab’s engineers create auto-detection and classification software, using machine-learning techniques. They also created RAVEN software, which has been used in research and resulted in more than 600 publications. The team offers Sound Analysis Workshops for researchers from around the world, teaching them how to monitor and study wildlife using sound.
The lab’s Information Science program taps into data-intensive science to reveal key insights and trends. By combining large data sets of bird distribution and abundance with satellite information about vegetation, weather, and other environmental data, researchers learn about biological patterns and changes on a broad geographical scale.
Bird watchers around the world generate the crucial data behind eBird at the rate of 7.5 million observations on average each month. These data are available for researchers anywhere to use. The lab’s scientists use this data to create models that predict movements and abundance of bird species during their entire annual life cycles.
The data from eBird has been used in dozens of scientific research papers. Scientists have used the data to shape conservation efforts requiring accurate migration timing and location information; monitor declining species; and assess the impact of environmental crises such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Bird Population Studies researchers investigate how birds respond to natural forces such as disease and competition between species. They also investigate the impact of human-caused changes, including acid rain and fragmentation of habitats by development. These factors can affect every aspect of a bird’s life—from migration timing and choice of territory to nesting success and foraging for food.
A major emphasis of the work is research into the rise of eye disease in house finches.
“After participants in the lab’s Project FeederWatch first reported sick house finches in 1993,” says André Dhondt, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the program’s director, “we have been able to document the emergence and epidemic spread of a new wildlife disease at a level of detail never achieved before.”
The research combines field and experimental studies as well as collaborations with statistical and computer scientists to delve deeper into the lives of birds, using data from the lab’s citizen-science projects.
The Lab of Ornithology’s educators produce a wealth of material to help students, teachers, and bird watchers explore the complex and fascinating lives of birds.
The BirdSleuth K-12 curriculum engages children across the Americas in scientific inquiry involving birds. Lifelong learners tackle the lab’s university-level, self-paced course in bird biology, explore the interactive Bird Academy website, and attend webinars and tutorials on everything from waterfowl identification to birding techniques.
The All About Birds website reaches 14 million people each year and the Merlin Bird ID app has been downloaded more than one million times. Live Bird Cams create deep connections to nature by opening a window on the private lives of red-tailed hawks, owls, California condors, and other fascinating birds. The lab also produces the Birds of North America, a definitive reference.
The Visitor Center welcomes more than 60,000 visitors each year who come to learn about birds and how they can get involved.
Citizen-science participants from around the world help researchers investigate changes in bird populations across temporal and geographic scales, which is only possible with the help of thousands of observers.
NestWatch participants help scientists track breeding success. Project FeederWatch participants help reveal changes in the movements and abundance of feeder birds in winter. Celebrate Urban Birds seeks information about birds in cities and how they use green spaces. The annual four-day Great Backyard Bird Count collects data from around the world to create a snapshot of bird numbers and distribution. Each of these projects makes it possible to detect significant changes over time.
Citizen science is also a learning tool. Habitat Network helps participants map their lands, make them bird- and wildlife-friendly, and connect to others with the same goals. Public Engagement in Science researchers explore what motivates people to participate in science and take action for birds and the environment.
Conservation Science researchers work on many fronts to protect birds and habitats across the Western Hemisphere. The goal is to use the best science to inform conservation policies that address the most critical threats to birds and biodiversity.
Research topics include investigating how shade-grown coffee plantations benefit North American birds that spend winters in South America. Other research explores the impact of habitat loss, the logistics of seasonal migrations, and the cause of species declines among birds, such as the hermit thrush, cerulean warbler, and grassland birds.
Partnerships are key. Conservation science staff participate in generating State of the Birds reports for the federal government; produce land manager guides that offer best practices for conservation; provide bird conservation resources in partnership with land trusts; and work with international partners in Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean to build in-country capacity for bird monitoring, research, and conservation planning.
Researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are passionate about studying birds and biodiversity and advancing conservation. Their mission encompasses fieldwork, laboratory research, data-intensive science, student training, and globally renowned citizen-science and lifelong learning programs. Researchers at the Lab of Ornithology study not only birds but also marine mammals, forest elephants, and other wildlife. They partner with government agencies, nonprofits, industries, and communities around the world, providing critically needed tools, techniques, and data for research and conservation.
Founded in 1915, the Lab of Ornithology today is a thriving hub for research and outreach, with more than 200 staff, scientists, and students. Supported in part by more than 100,000 donors, the lab is in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, with its home base a few miles from campus in the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity. More than 60,000 visitors each year come from around the world to walk the Sapsucker Woods trails, take guided tours, and explore the lab’s exhibits.
Technological innovation has been a hallmark of the Lab of Ornithology ever since its founder, Arthur “Doc” Allen, and colleagues helped capture the first sound recordings of wild North American birds in 1929. Today, the Linda R. and William E. Macaulay Library here houses the world’s largest collection of natural sounds and videos, with free digital access to researchers and the public. The lab also develops advanced technologies for automated wildlife sound recording and analysis.
Another feature of the lab is its longstanding partnership between scientists and bird watchers through a suite of citizen-science projects. With more than 330 million observation on birds from around the world, the eBird project yields new insights and data-intensive visualizations on the distribution and abundance of birds and the effects of environmental change.
“Any person, any study” at the Lab of Ornithology extends from higher education to its K-12 BirdSleuth curriculum and lifelong learning opportunities reaching more than 14 million people annually. The lab is a center for biodiversity training with some 70 undergraduates, 30 graduate students, and 15 postdoctoral fellows engaged in research. The biological sciences intersect here with engineering, computer science, social sciences, economics, art, communications, and other disciplines to reveal a greater understanding of biodiversity and a greater impact for conservation.